Interview with Deborah Rockman

Deborah Rockman and I met in college. I immediately felt a deep connection to her that seemed pre-established.  She is a very political artist and person. We did a telephone interview and then cleaned up her naturally irreverent language, I hope her spirit and her humor come through. I wanted to know how things have changed, the current shape of teaching, and to discuss her own work and activism.

She has written two books, Drawing Essentialswhich explains every aspect of drawing and The Art of Teaching Art, both published by Oxford University Press.

This interview will explain how one woman in Western Michigan has singlehandedly changed the way drawing is and will be taught. We did this interview by phone on Feb. 10, 2018.

Christine: How did you start making art to begin with?

Deborah: As a kid one of my goals was to be a perfect student in Catholic grade school, that included art projects. I took art classes in high school, I really liked it and knew when I went to college I wanted to somehow be involved with art.

C. You and I met at Western Michigan University in the printmaking department studying with Curtis Rhodes and Chuck Heasley who studied at the Tamarind Institute.

D. I was focused on printmaking. I was making drawings on litho stone and printing them so I could have duplicates of my drawings. I did some intaglio and aquatinting also. I ended up getting a Bachelors Degree in Fine Art with a secondary teaching certificate. Didn’t get a BFA, never had a BFA show.

C. I want to talk about your work and teaching and how they intertwine.

D. After my undergrad degree I spent a year teaching a graphic design program in a high school in Davison, Michigan. Didn’t like it. Too many limits placed on the students, who acted out accordingly, I didn’t want to be a baby sitter. My colleagues would sit in the teacher’s lounge and talk about gays and how horrible they were. I thought this is not what I want to do and I could get fired for who I am. At the end of my year there I got into an accident and was laid up for a year. During that time I decided to go to grad school to study drawing and printmaking. After researching I applied to one school and was accepted at the University of Cincinnati. I had a full ride. Back then admission to grad school was almost always free. It was late 1970s and early 1980s. I had a relatively good experience. All my teachers were men with one exception. I learned a lot about printing from two Tamarind printers, but in terms of the ideas in my work and talking about concept and content I didn’t get much. I felt I learned more from my fellow students. I knew by then I wanted to teach.

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Meditation on LUCK

By Christine Hughes & Yuko Otomo

Meditation on LUCK: Take Care

I was walking in some unfamiliar landscape. I had no idea why I was there. I looked up to the sky that was blue, not gray. OK. That’s good. I thought. For some reasons, I needed something clear above my head to keep on walking. Strangely, I realized that I did not see any humans around me. That’s very good, I thought again. I had been tired of my fellow species for quite a while. Our overly enthusiastic eagerness for self-serving, self-indulgent, self-seeking complexities, mine included, was too much to deal with for obvious reasons that didn’t not need any explanations even to myself or to the others. Ah. I was tired. I was tired, not from walking. I was deadly tired, not from being in a strange unfamiliar surrounding, but from being “human”. I kept walking & walking & wondered why I did not get bored walking in this nothing landscape. Give me some luck! I talked to the sky. What luck? The sky bounced my question back at me. Let me be something else, or anything but a human! I answered, knowing the sky was just an empty void. Suddenly, a bird flew above my head out of nowhere. It was so fast that all I saw was a quick impression of its swift movement. I heard it say, “Take Care” as it flew by. Of course, it didn’t say anything. I imagined that I heard its voice. I made it all up. But it didn’t matter. Thinking of a bird wishing me a good luck on the long unknown journey was a good start. I felt good & kept on walking.

Meditation on LUCK: Catastrophe; Cataclysm & Culmination

Felicity. Blessing. Godsend. Providential Occurrences. Prescribed Superstitions. Sacrifice. Circumstantial Accidents. Fallacy. Destiny. Ritual. Belief. Prophecy. Principles. Folklore. Optimistic Attributions. Stimuli. Subliminal Messages. Divine Practice. Omen. Improbability. Positivism. Negativity. Fate. Synchronicity. Meaningful Coincidence. Different Fields.  Alternatives. Sovereignty. Arrows. JOB. Randomness. Synonym. Antonym. Calamity. Prosperity. Defeat. Troubles. Metaphysical Naturalism. Sorrow. Lapse. Bad Coffee. Boring Conversations. Bad Jokes. Multi-Components. Of What. A Stroke. A Whip. Let Down. Festivals. Prefixed. Adversity. More. No More. & More No More. Appraisal. Merits. Forbidden. Ignorance. Deity. Unfavorable. Gambling. School Picnics. Field Day. Gain & Loss. Anxiety. Entailment. Disambiguation. Prologue. Epilogue. Piety. Patriarchy. Matriarchy. Hierarchy. Musical Instruments. Voices. Heard. Unheard. Sheep. Shepard. Dog. Double Trouble. Author. Reader. Publisher. Comfort. Knowledge. Justice. Words. Beyond Words. Murder. Past. Present. Favorable. Class Rooms. No Future. Eccentricities. Natural Laws. Offerings. HOW. WHAT. WHO. TO WHOM. & WHY. Dove. Cinnamon. Danger. Last Word. Manifestation. Symbols. Celebration. Wealth. Grace. Fortune. Beauty. Conflicts. Effortlessness. Inner Peace. Paradigm. Oath. Happy Ending. Legend. Streams. Mercy. Sailboats.

Meditations on LUCK: To Carry

In my mother tongue, Japanese, LUCK is written 運. Our language, especially written forms, has developed borrowing Chinese language. We even modified it to create our own alphabets. Strange to think Japanese didn’t have its written forms until it adapted them from Chinese. We imported many actual Chinese characters into our language system as well. So, the written form of Japanese is a mixture of invented alphabets & directly borrowed, sometimes slightly simplified Chinese characters. Interestingly, not just characters, but we inherited many concepts such as 愛 LOVE which did not exist before. We had a concept of 情 EMOTION, but not 愛 LOVE.  How fascinating it is to read Waka, thinking of their love poems are not about LOVE but about EMOTION. Going back to 運 LUCK, the character has a symbol of a “wheel” inside it & it literary means “To Carry”. To carry what? I wonder. If you combine 運  LUCK & 命 LIFE, it becomes 運命 DESTINY. To carry life. What life? I wonder again. Like in English, we have 幸運 GOOD LUCK & 悪運 BAD LUCK. 幸 means HAPPINESS. 悪 means BAD & EVIL. Then, what does HAPPINESS mean? What about EVIL? I keep wondering. I don’t think of LUCK/UNLUCK too much, but I think of HAPPINESS/UNHAPPINESS quite often. It is much easier to associate the feelings of HAPPINESS/UNHAPPINESS since it is my own sensation. I always feel lost dealing with LUCK/UNLUCK since it is beyond me. I have no control. LA CHANCE. I like the French version of the terminology the best since it tells of its abstraction in such a direct depiction. BON CHANCE! How lovely it sounds, being so “matter of fact.” But then I wonder again, what is CHANCE? Sweet Cake? Milagro? Oracle Bone Scripts? For me, it is about having a house & a boat. So, I can sail out anytime to anywhere to come back to rest & to sleep till the next morning.

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Segers’ Mysterious Landscapes

With everything that has been happening in politics lately, I felt frivolous going uptown to look at art, but because Hercules Segers is an artist whose work I have loved for years I decided I would go.

I am so glad I did.

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers is the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Segers’ prints and paintings ever done. Segers, according to 17th century records, was a prolific artist but very few of his works remain. The Rijksmuseum states there are 183 impressions from 54 plates and 15 paintings total.

There are no remaining plates.

The exhibit at the Metropolitian Museum of Art has 112 prints and paintings on display. This show originated at the Rijksmuseum last October before coming to The MET, where it will be until May 21, 2017.

The Rijksmuseum owns the majority of Segers’ work, 74 prints, 2 oil sketches and 1 painting. Some forty of their prints came from the Amsterdam collector Michiel Hinloopen (1619–1708) who is thought to have acquired them from the artist’s estate after his untimely death. New research by Rijksmuseum experts shed light on Segers’ materials and techniques. They were able to authenticate several paintings and two oil sketches. The museum has created a two volume Catalogue Raisonne Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher.

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Interview with Bruce Gagnier

Donald Vega and I went together to visit Bruce Gagnier in his Brooklyn studio. My role as an interviewer, as I see it, is similar to Vega’s as a photographer. We are there mostly to witness and record. Vega’s photographs are only of Bruce and his studio, yet they embody Vega’s skill as a photographer and his eye as an artist. I hope my presence is as invisible and allows the reader to meet a very candid, soft spoken and generous artist.

Bruce Gagnier is perhaps the most dedicated artist I have ever met. He has crafted a life with single minded focus on his art. His studio is sparse, spare, Sanctum Sanctorium. His windows onto the Brooklyn street are papered to defuse light but seem to filter out time as well. The studio is populated with figures, life size and smaller, in bronze, in plaster, in clay. The walls are covered with paintings of figures. The flat files are full of drawings of figures, singular figures.

Bruce Gagnier: In the past I sometimes worked as a handyman. I could never afford the tools I wanted. Now that I can afford them, I buy them.

But you don’t have to do that work anymore?

I don’t do that kind of work, but I keep collecting tools.

That’s so funny. Are you going to buy a house someday and be your own handyman?


This is a beautiful space. Have you been here a long time?

Twenty years. It takes very little upkeep.

Where are you from originally?

Williamstown, Massachusetts.

I was there recently to see the show “Nudes from the Prado” at the Clark.

There are two great museums there. I think they must have affected me.

You went to Williams College?

Yes, I went on a full scholarship because I was from town and Williams was a land grant school. That’s been discontinued.

My father was a painter when he was young. He took me to the museums, which was not always pleasant for a young boy, partly because he was always giving lessons. As you know there is a Piero della Francesca in Williamstown at the Clark. My father had a good eye and he had good teachers, he would say something like; “See Bruce, the back foot of the Saint on the right penetrates the plane of the altar.” I would say “Dad, that’s a Piero della Francesca.” He’d say “No, no, look! It’s a mistake.” Years later I found out that this part of the painting was badly restored. Perhaps this episode and others like it explain in part my obsession with plastic values. He also felt that the Renoir nudes did not “seat.”

Your father was a painter, where was he from?

He grew up in Williamstown. He had a grocery store / butcher’s market with his father. We were immersed in a very colorful French Canadian community near the Gaevert Mill.

And he quit painting?

I thought the reason he quit was because he had children and he had to work at the store every day. He said “No, I had plenty of strength; the reason I quit was because I couldn’t tell if what I was doing was any good or not.”

Interesting. That’s pretty heartfelt.

He told me that just before he died. I hoped he would take up painting again.

How old was he when he quit?

He was in his forties.

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

No. Partly because my family wanted me to be everything else.
I got sent away to school because I was doing poorly academically. My father and mother made this great effort and sacrifice. They put me into boarding school in Vermont. That was a big change in my life. The discipline suited me. I did well.

Were you painting then?

I painted and drew with my father sometimes — not seriously — only occasionally, in his studio. As a child I was the model for his drawing group — sometimes posing in the landscape.

What was the spark that brought you to making art?

At the end of college I felt that I wasn’t finding myself in the sciences. I became very aware that it is was time to decide who and what I wanted to be. Art emerged as something very compelling. I had been taking some art history and design classes at Williams. I was really drawn to the life that I imagined was lived by the people who had made such marvelous things in the past. Aside from the great Romanesque sculpture in the Williams College Museum, there was a marvelous painting by Matta titled Rain that hung in the hall of the art history building.

At the end of my time at Williams, I asked one of my professors if he could recommend something in the way of an art school to me for the summer. He said there’s a place called Skowhegan, maybe you could go there. What luck! And,  well, I did go. I think I was the only one there who paid.

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Interview with Ellen E. Rand

I have known Ellen for several years. It took me only a half hour to fall in love with her. She is a deeply cultured, intelligent, warm, humorous and candid person. I wanted to do this interview a year ago, but Ellen was ill and I never got to ask her. Now with the advent of her show at Randall Harris’ Figureworks Gallery, and Ellen having gotten through all her medical stuff, the timing seemed perfect. Aside from being a wonderful painter, Ellen runs her own gallery Art 101 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She comes from an intriguing family of women painters and has published a book centered on the life and work of her grandmother and family called “Dear Females.”

Let’s start by discussing the paintings in your show here at Figureworks.

This was a painting I did quite a while ago, (Ellen pulls out a small, orangish painting) and I put it in Randall’s self portrait show. See this shape: everything in this show is taken from this shape.

The shape is obviously the female figure.

Actually all my life I have been working with female torsos, the shape is almost abstract.

How did you begin working with that form?

From drawing the model I guess, then starting to paint. I’m not intellectual.  It all just comes along.

You are intuitive?

I guess so. These two paintings in the first room were done before I got my diagnosis and my operation. So, then I got the diagnosis in April, which was pretty severe. Had the operation in May, couldn’t work for a while. In June I met with the oncologist and he told me that this disease can come back in a year or two and kill you. I came home and thought well, I’m dead. That inspired me to schedule the gallery for the next year and to start to paint again.

That is so totally you.

I had some paintings started and I continued those and started some new ones. Something in me made me go and buy some wood, have it cut into strips, and put the strips in the middle of the panels thus separating them. I looked at the first one I did a couple of weeks later and I thought, “Oh, I did that because I was cut up and put back together.” I had these two which I was working on. I decided to keep them separate,  and horizontal. You see it’s still the same shapes, they are landscapes now.

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Morandi at CIMA

When I was 13 and just finishing my catechism classes, having been newly confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I replied without hesitation that I wanted to become a monk, one who took the vow of silence and was a mendicant. I was told just as quickly in response that because I was a girl I could instead be a nun. This is when I became an artist.

Giorgio Morandi has for me always been an artist whose work I turn to for inspiration, guidance, and to renew my vows, as it were.

We have so few opportunities in the United States to see an exhibit of Morandi’s work.

The Center for Italian Modern Art on Broome Street in New York City has just opened a fine exhibit, Giorgio Morandi, which runs through June 25th, 2016.  CIMA is a non profit research and exhibition center. On Fridays and Saturdays their fellows in residence give a guided tour of the exhibit (as well as a wonderful espresso prior). The viewing that I attended was peopled mostly by artists (mostly established), who I would bet we’re there for the same reason I was.

Giorgio Morandi looms large in legend. Exaggerated claims of his lifestyle; not traveling, not allowing anyone into his studio and being uninterested in fame or fortune.

He lead an exemplary life in that he seems to have made all his decisions based on his relationship to his work. He did a bit of travel, saw and appreciated the work of Cézanne, Giotto, Piero della Francesca and other artists, yet was basically content to stay in his family home with his sisters and keep the focus in his studio. Some exaggerate his steadfastness to extremes. I disagree with that characterization. Any artist knows when they come to that point in their work where something spiritual happens it’s a gift. We know not to leave the room, not to let anyone disrupt us, to forget about dinner and so on. The more we work, the more these times happen. I do think that Morandi was living his life pretty close to that state all the time and he was very protective of it, nothing more than that.

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Three Correlations: OUT & / or IN

Authors: Yuko Otomo  –  Christine Hughes – Randee Silv

There is something so special about this fair. It’s a wonderful way to get an overview of the field of outsider art, to see gems by masters old and new, find familiar faces and meet new dealers.

We think of outsiders as monastic in their endeavors. Creating a world of their own as either a way of communicating or an intimate, passionate act of self absorption. The way a conventional artist works in some sense, but without maybe the goal of fame or fortune.  If one ever has a chance to see the film Roger Ricco made of Williams Hawkins or the film of Jon Serl, there is not a word of explanation needed. This work is often visionary. By this I don’t mean fairies or outer space but a vision into a different kind of life right here. An intimacy in the work, missing the layer of academic gloss on most of what we find in conventional art. One feels as though they are breathing the same air as James Castle when standing in front of his work.

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Interview: Joseph Thompson (MASS MoCA)

CH MASS MoCA has been open for 15 years now?

JT This is year 15, but for me personally 13 was more significant because we had then been open longer that it took to get open to begin with.

CH Can you give those of us who have never been to MASS MoCA some background of the museum and how it got started?

JT “MASS MoCA One” exists, the idea of it, and it’s called DIA Beacon. DIA Beacon is a beautiful monument to mainly large scale, mainly minimal art of the 70s and 80s.

The original idea for MASS MoCA was that we were going to borrow works from Ileana Sonnabend and Charles Saatchi and Giuseppe Panza, works by Judd and Flavin and Morris and Serra, large works that required ample time and space, install them and leave them up for a very long time.

These buildings are gorgeous, a factory campus 26 buildings 600,000 sq. ft of floorspace, 16 acres, roughly a third of the downtown business district of North Adams. The former occupant, Sprague Electric, had closed in the mid 1980s when we first proposed this idea. It was simple: clean the buildings up and install these large bodies of work which were as much environmental as landscape in orientation.

CH So you were setting out to start a museum?

JT Absolutely. More of a fixed depot, a place where large monumental works came and were sighted for a very long length of time. It has relativity little to do with what MASS MoCA is today.

CH Kind of the opposite, isn’t it?

JT In fact it is.

In the early 90s, as we were trying to bring money, buildings, art, political support, philanthropic support all together at the same time we introduced several really important changes.

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Dialogue As a Verb

Everyone I know at some point during the past two years has approached me, as an ex-Detroiter and an artist, asking me questions like “Shouldn’t we all move to Detroit?” or “What is happening to the Detroit Institute of Art?” or telling me someone they know is going to Detroit for a “project” or to “study” what is happening there.

Of course we all know that Detroit, being the seat of the auto industry, has had financial trouble since the 1960s and 1970s. Some blame it on the difficulties between management and labor, some on corrupt city government, some on the importation of cars from outside the US. Whatever the genesis, the situation has worsened in past years to create a void both in population and infrastructure. Nature, hating a void, has filled it in with surges of people flooding into the city, each seemingly with his or her own agenda. What I am reading in the press is bizarre. Some seem to be drawn to cheap housing, some to the scene they read about is happening there, some to try and help, proudly buying someone’s foreclosed house for a pittance. Help? Hmm.

The question I keep asking is where are all the dislocated people? All the folks that lost their homes?

And what is the impact of this influx of hipsters-hucksters on what’s been a solid arts community and on the rest of the city?

The Detroit suburbs are strong and as stable as any others in the country. And although the city has lost an enormous amount of population and housing, there are and have always been real people there living very normal lives. Why then is Detroit ALWAYS portrayed as the ghetto? I feel as though the media treats it like a huge auto accident, portraying the destruction and playing to the voyeurism.

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